It Pays to Think Small

Sept. 1, 1999

Imagine laboring behind a wheelbarrow as you push a load of dirt up a narrow grade under a harsh sun on a sweltering summer day. Reaching the top offers little relief. Like everywhere else on the project, there’s no room to operate a backhoe or a similar-size piece of construction equipment. So after dumping the dirt, you use a shovel and a rake to place and spread it. Then, you head back downhill to do it all over again.and again.and again. Now picture yourself doing that same job in a fraction of the time while sitting down inside the cab of a skid-steer loader as you control an engine and hydraulics that do all of the hard work.

That’s just one example of how these compact machines can save erosion control contractors a ton of time and the backbreaking toil while boosting profits. Attachments enable these amazing machines to do a wide range of jobs where time, labor, and working space are limited. You can use a skid-steer loader to drill a post hole, dig a trench for irrigation lines, lift a pallet of retaining wall blocks, lay sod, clear brush, or transplant a tree. And that’s just for starters. Other skills include sweeping streets, blowing snow from sidewalks, mixing concrete, planing asphalt, and grinding stumps. Chances are that no matter what the job is in moving and shaping earth, as well as many other types of construction and materials-handling work, someone, somewhere, somehow has a found a way to do it faster, easier, and at less cost using a skid-steer loader.

The ranks of savvy contractors profiting from the work-saving abilities of skid-steer loaders have been growing steadily since the late 1950s. That’s when the forerunner of today’s high-performance machines was developed to save time, labor, and drudgery for a Minnesota farmer who wanted an alternative to a pitchfork for cleaning out his turkey barns. That small, motorized three-wheeled machine—equipped with an operator’s seat and two arms for raising, lowering, and dumping a large fork—could spin completely around on either of its two large front-drive wheels.

That set the stage for a whole new class of construction equipment: compact, agile, and speedy machines with the heart of a workhorse that could easily outpace hand labor and work in places much too small for tractors and other large machines. Manufacturers have been refining that concept ever since.

Depending on make and model, today’s sophisticated skid-steer loaders offer such features as unitized welded frames; electronic monitoring of vital engine conditions that warns of low oil pressure, overheating, or other dangers and provides diagnostic information for service technicians; sealed pins and self-lubricating bushings; servo controls; a hydraulic leveling system that keeps loads level when lifting or lowering; universal attachment systems; quick and easy access to service and maintenance items; and amenities such as ergonomic controls, enclosed cabs with heat, smooth-riding suspension seats, and air conditioning to boot.

For many contractors involved with shaping and stabilizing slopes, streams, and shorelines, skid-steer loaders aren’t just an option—they’re a necessity.

“In many cases, a skid-steer loader is an essential piece of equipment because it’s so versatile,” states Bob Davis of Compact Technologies in Port Washington, WI, manufacturer of SCAT TRAK skid-steer loaders. “It’s the first machine on the job site and the last one to leave.

A skid-steer loader offers you a lot of machine for the money. For more and more contractors, it’s replacing the tractor-loader backhoe as the entry-level machine.” A skid-steer loader, along with a pickup and a trailer to haul the machine, was the first piece of equipment Bob King bought when he began Land Designs Ltd. 15 years ago. The Des Moines, IA, company provides seeding and sodding services for homebuilders and large commercial customers.

“We didn’t consider any type of equipment other than a skid-steer loader because of its versatility,” says King. “We saw it as our bread-and-butter machine. We’ve owned a fair amount of equipment over the years, including tractors and trenchers. But skid-steer loaders have been the backbone of our company. Typically, whatever we do on any given day involves a skid-steer loader.

“If you’re strictly a seeding contractor, you might not have as much use for a skid-steer loader as we do,” he points out. “But if you’re moving relatively small amounts of dirt, doing grading or finishing work—especially in tight places—or loading and unloading trucks, a skid-steer loader is a pretty versatile piece of equipment for doing that.”

Currently the company owns three skid-steer loaders, each with a rated operating capacity of 1,700 lb. Two are 60-hp machines; the other is powered by a 46-hp engine. It’s not unusual for all three machines to be working at one time. King estimates the annual usage of each machine ranges from about 600 to 800 hours.

“Dollar for dollar, we get a higher return on our investment with skid-steer loaders than we would with larger equipment because of the productivity of the loaders and the hourly rate we can charge for them.”

Without the skid-steer loaders, he says, the company would need a forklift for loading and unloading materials, a tractor-loader backhoe for digging, and a farm tractor with loader arms and a bucket on the front and a grading box on the rear. As it is, the skid-steer loaders perform those duties using such attachments as a bucket, pallet forks, a backhoe, and a power rake.

For the past year or two, Land Designs has been expanding its services to include erosion control work, such as highway projects. On these jobs, the skid-steer loaders come in handy for handling large, round straw bales. Equipped with a bale-spear attachment, the machines load the bales onto trucks, unload them at the job site, and transport them to the straw blower. King is considering using his skid-steer loaders with a silt-fence installation machine to save time putting up the fences. His skid-steer loaders also speed up work in confined areas where hand labor would be required otherwise.

“Skid-steer loaders are a lot easier to mobilize than larger equipment,” King adds. “They’re pretty small, so you don’t need a larger power unit to pull them and a trailer down the highway. You can use a pickup or a 1-ton truck instead of a tractor-trailer required to move some of the bigger machines.”

Few, if any, pieces of construction equipment can match the value offered by skid-steer loaders. They combine a relatively low price-from about $11,000 for the smallest models to about $45,000 for the largest machines-with the ability to make quick, easy work of an incredibly extensive range of jobs thanks to a list of attachments that only grows longer.

“For years, skid-steer loaders had to fight the image of being ‘just a toy,'” says Peter Mabee with Thomas Equipment Ltd. in Mars Hill, ME. “Today, however, contractors see them as an important addition to their arsenal of equipment. While skid-steer loaders have long been recognized for their abilities to handle material in confined areas, what has led to increased acceptance of the machines by a wider group of contractors is the availability of a broad range of attachments that makes skid-steer loaders suitable for a wide variety of work tasks and capitalizes on its true versatility. This enables the contractor to replace many single-purpose pieces of equipment with a skid-steer loader, which reduces operating and equipment costs while boosting efficiency. In addition, more powerful hydraulic packages are being offered, increasing the loader’s ability to operate bigger and more productive tools.”

Several other factors add to the value of skid-steer loaders. Their reliability and durability are much improved over earlier models. Also, unlike the larger machines that require bigger trucks and trailers and more stringent driver’s licensing requirements to transport from one job to another, skid-steer loaders can be hauled on smaller trailers towed by a pickup truck.

The crew at Turfscape Inc., a Zionsville, IN, erosion control contractor, puts its skid-steer loader and attachments to a variety of profitable uses on a daily basis.

In addition to a bucket and pallet forks, the erosion controllers use a trencher attachment with the skid-steer loader to save time and labor installing silt fence. This tool can dig an 8-in.-wide trench as deep as 4 ft. However, they usually trench no deeper than about 8 in.

Before they had the skid-steer loader, they dug the trenches by hand or rented a dedicated trenching machine. “The skid-steer loader lets us trench in rough terrain, where it was very difficult or impossible to reach with a trenching machine,” says company president Gary Schlensker. “The trencher attachment is similar in speed to a medium to large trenching machine, and it has a fair amount of power for cutting through tree roots.” In fact, he had considered buying a trenching machine but decided in favor of a skid-steer loader because of its ability to do a wide range of jobs.

The skid-steer loader is also used with pallet forks to carry the 50-ft. rolls of silt-fence fabric to the job site and used with the bucket to backfill the trench once the fence fabric is in place. Typically, a crew of three or four people can install about 1,500-2,000 ft. of silt fence in a day, Schlensker notes.

When the skid-steer loader isn’t working on a job site, it helps around the shop unloading trucks and moving such materials as hydromulch and rebar. Steel tracks keep the machine working in wet areas and on rugged terrain, while rubber pads protect pavement and other sensitive surfaces, he adds.

Turfscape bought its skid-steer loader five years ago to solve a specific problem. The company had just purchased a large hydroseeding rig and needed a way to load bags of seed, fertilizer, and hydromulch on top of the unit. A skid-steer loader with an extended-reach vertical lift path and a 1,700-lb. rated operating capacity provided the solution. It wasn’t long before the machine became an essential piece of equipment for solving other problems. “It’s an integral part of our operation,” says Schlensker. “We use it first thing in the morning to load our trucks and then throughout the day for various jobs like trenching or rough grading. It’s quite a versatile piece of equipment. We’re at a real loss if we don’t have it.”

He speaks from experience. When the skid-steer loader is on a job site or, on a few occasions, in for maintenance, his crews have had to use a tractor with a front-loader bucket to load the large hydroseeding machines.

“The skid-steer loader does the job in half the time of the tractor,” Schlensker says. “It can lift a pallet full of mulch, fertilizer, or seed compared to the five or six bags that the tractor can handle.

“We’re very satisfied with our skid-steer loader. Even if we expanded and added a forklift and a dedicated trencher to our equipment list, we’d still have a skid-steer loader. It can be used in a lot of different settings.”

While a broad range of attachments is the key to the versatility of skid-steer loaders, skid steering is the key to their agility. That, in turn, hinges on the ratio of the loader’s tire-tread width to wheelbase and the machine’s balance. With conventional four-wheel motorized vehicles, the two rear wheels are mounted on a fixed axle to roll either forward or backward, while the front two wheels can be turned to the right or left as they roll forward or backward. All four wheels on a skid-steer loader are mounted on fixed axles and run only straight ahead or straight back.

Also, unlike conventional four-wheel self-propelled vehicles, which have one drive system for two or all four wheels, skid-steer loaders have two independent transmissions. One controls the two right wheels; the other controls the left two. This setup provides two ways to change the direction of travel. To turn the machine to the left-away from a wall, for example-you stop rotation of the two left tires by keeping their steering control in neutral. Then, using the right steering control, you rotate the two right tires forward. This causes the machine to skid to the left, giving the machine its skid-steer feature. For a faster spin turn, say when loading dirt from a pile into a truck, you rotate tires on one side forward while reversing tire rotation on the other side.

Whether the skid-steer loader turns or pivots on the front or the rear axle depends on how weight is distributed, explains Lynn Roesler, skid-steer-loader products manager for Melroe Company in Fargo, ND. “Skid-steer loaders are designed so that, without a load on the bucket, about 70 percent of the machine’s weight is on the rear axles and about 30 percent is on the front axles. With most of the load on the rear axles, the machine turns or pivots on the rear wheels, and the front wheels skid right or left.

“When the bucket is loaded or another tool is attached, weight distribution reverses. Now most of the weight is on the front axles, and the rear wheels skid as the machine turns or spins. The optimum tread-width-to-wheelbase ratio enables a properly designed skid-steer loader to turn without consuming excess engine power or causing excess tire wear.”

At one time, belts, gears, shafts, and clutches were used to transmit power from the engine to the wheels of skid-steer loaders. Today, hydrostatic transmissions do the job using hydraulic fluid, pumps, and motors. Hydrostatic transmissions operate much more smoothly than mechanical-drive systems. Also, controls with hydrostatic systems respond the instant you move them, unlike the slight delays you experience when you engage clutch-operated mechanical drives. Hydrostatic systems require less servicing than mechanical transmissions, but servicing the former, particularly the pumps, requires a much higher level of technical expertise.

Hydraulics is also used to control the lift arms or booms and the buckets, pallet forks, and other tools attached to them.

Today contractors buy more skid-steer loaders in a year than any other type of construction equipment sold in the United States. Over the past eight years, demand for these machines in the US has increased 140%. Total unit sales this year could hit the 60,000 mark.

“The market for skid-steer loaders is still growing, especially for the larger models,” Davis says. “Overall, we expect demand to climb about 5 percent annually for at least the next several years.”

Skid-steer loaders range in size from a snappy little diesel-powered, 16-hp, 2,500-lb. model that can zip through a doorway or a fence gate to the biggest brutes, up to 5 tons in weight with engine-power ratings as high as 105 hp, lifting heights of at least 10 ft., and rated operating capacities of more than 3,000 lb. (Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE] standard J818).

Regardless of size, skid-steers loaders are designed for serious work. Just ask Jeff Schwartz, the production manager for Ruppert Environmental in Ashton, MD, a division of nationwide TruGreen-LandCare. Schwartz and his crews use the machines on erosion control and environmental restoration projects, such as stream stabilization, wetland creation, and reforestation.

“Skid-steer loaders are must-have machines for us because we use them for so many different types of jobs,” he says. “Often our skid-steer loaders are out every day working on a job. Without them, we’d have to use bigger machines, like a trackhoe or a backhoe, and a lot more manual labor in smaller areas. For areas where larger equipment wouldn’t fit, we’d probably have to use machines with extended booms or do the work by hand with hoes, picks, and shovels.”

Schwartz and his crews use two skid-steer loaders. Attachments include a toothed bucket used for grading and a smooth-edge bucket. The bucket hauls and places riprap and carries soil amendments, other bulk material, and smaller plants. Schwartz reports that the bucket can hold about 50 small trees in containers. In addition to handling palleted material, such as bagged fertilizer, the 1- to 3-in.-caliper pallet forks save time and labor moving and placing boulders and unloading, carrying, and planting trees. An auger attachment with a 36-in.-diameter bit is used to drill planting holes for larger trees. When working in soft or muddy conditions, both skid-steer loaders can be equipped with steel tracks for better traction.

Among the features Schwartz likes about skid-steer loaders are good maneuverability in tight areas, speed and ease of changing attachments, and the ability to work on rough terrain. “They’re universal, all-around machines,” he says. “They’re not too big and not too small.”

He and his crews have discovered that teaming up on work with both machines at once can produce some impressive results. On one island reforestation project, for example, they were under a short deadline to plant 200 4- to 4.5-in.-caliper trees, which had been barged to the site.

“With one skid-steer loader digging the planting holes and the other carrying and placing the trees with pallet forks, we planted all the trees in less than four days,” Schwartz says.

In addition to the conventional skid-steer-loader design—four-wheel hydrostatic drive with most tools mounted in front on two lift arms—several manufacturers offer variations. Takeuchi in Buford, GA, for example, produces a machine similar in size and many other features to a skid-steer loader except that it operates on a dedicated track system. This compact track loader costs about 5-10% more than a similar-size skid-steer loader. However, that’s offset by its increased productivity, says Rex Hayes, product sales manager for Takeuchi. That, in turn, stems from the compact track-loader’s ability to work in soft or muddy soil conditions that would stop a skid-steer loader, as well as better traction than skid-steer loaders on uneven terrain.

“The compact track loader’s greater traction means more of the machine’s power can be used for digging,” says Hayes. “If most of your work involves hard or improved surfaces, you’ll probably be happier with a conventional skid-steer loader. But if you’re working at least 40 percent of the time on dirt, a compact track loader is worth considering.”

JCB Inc. in White March, MD, offers several variations on the skid-steer-loader theme. Its models feature a single lift arm instead of two, which allows you to enter the cab from the side of the machine instead of the front. It also produces a skid-steer loader with a backhoe, which is an integral part of the machine, on the rear of the machine.

No doubt about it. The selection of makes, models, and features has never been greater. The key to making the most of these machines is choosing one that will not only do your work but will do it well, says John Ott, work crew supervisor for James Ranches Landscaping Inc. in Durango, CO. The company has been using skid-steer loaders for about five years at its native plant nursery and on its jobs, which range from residential landscapes to revegetation of landfills, mines, and along highways.

The first one replaced a tractor used in the nursery to move materials and balled and burlapped trees. The skid-steer loader was much faster and much more maneuverable in tight places, notes Ott. This year, that skid-steer loader was replaced with a much bigger machine, an 85-hp model with a rated operating capacity of 3,150 lb. “It packs a lot of power into a small package,” he remarks. “It’s really fast.”

Ott reports that using the skid-steer loader with a shovel attachment and a tree spade tool, a crew of three planted a dozen balled and burlapped trees in three hours-a job he estimates would take five people all day to complete using only hand tools.

Other attachments for the skid-steer loader include a bucket for handling various materials, such as rock or shredded bark, and an auger with a 12-in.-diameter bit for digging post and tree-planting holes. Occasionally, the company rents a wide rake attachment for leveling a site prior to seeding or laying sod and a power broom for cleaning up around roadside projects.

“The skid-steer loader is best for small-scale jobs, for filling in where a larger loader can’t get to, and for just loading or spreading gravel or other materials,” Ott says.

He offers this advice to erosion control contractors in selecting a skid-steer loader: “You’ll probably be happier with a more powerful model because you’ll soon be working it to its limit.”

Here are some other factors to consider in making your skid-steer-loader buying decision.

Type of Work. If you plan to use your loader mainly for just one task, such as rough grading, loading/unloading, or landscape finishing, you’ll probably be money ahead if you select the model with the power, speed, and size that best fits the task. However, most erosion control contractors with skid-steer loaders use their machines for a variety of duties. In that case, you’re probably better off buying the machine that will not only handle your typical job requirements but will also deliver a little extra performance when you need it.

Job-Site Conditions. Just getting to some erosion control job sites can be a challenge in itself. If access to job sites is often restricted by narrow or low passageways or if working and maneuvering room at the job itself is often limited, a smaller machine might be the best choice.

Power. One measure of a skid-steer loader’s ability to get the job done is rated operating capacity. Measured in pounds, it is one-half of the load required to cause the machine to tip forward when lifting with a standard digging bucket, according to SAE Standard J818. A machine with a 600-lb. rated operating capacity will lift a bucket of dirt. However, to lift a pallet of sod or blocks typically requires a minimum 1,700-lb. rated operating capacity.

Engine horsepower, of course, also measures work ability. Excavating soil requires more tractive power and more breakout force and, thus, more horsepower than, say, unloading hydromulch.

A better measure of a skid-steer loader’s suitability for excavating or grading chores is breakout force. This is the force applied by the machine’s lift arm and bucket cylinders at the bucket lip. The more the better, especially in heavy soil conditions.

The standard auxiliary hydraulic circuit on most skid-steer loaders will handle many of the attachments typically used for working with soil and moving construction materials. However, some tools, such as dozer blades and certain trenchers, require high-flow hydraulics. Generally, this means equipping a skid-steer loader with a hydraulic pump with a capacity of at least 25 gal./min.

Lifting/Loading Requirements. Suitability of a skid-steer loader for erosion control work may also hinge on the type of lift path. When viewed from the side, loaders with a radius lift path raise and lower buckets and other attachments in an arc. The greatest reach occurs in the middle of this arc. This type of lift path is better for loading and unloading jobs in the lower half of the lift path. Loaders with a vertical lift path-the load is raised and lowered in a straight up-and-down movement-provide the greatest reach at the top of the lift path. This gives the best performance when loading trucks.

Type of lift path also affects the rated operating capacity of a skid-steer loader. Because of the physics involved, a loader with a vertical lift path will have a higher rated operating capacity than another loader identical in every other way, including engine size, except for having a radius lift path.

Carry Distances. This can be an important consideration for erosion control work since it’s not unusual for job sites to be inaccessible to trucks that deliver fill and construction materials and haul away the soil and debris excavated with the skid-steer loader.

So travel speed and its direct impact on cycle times could help influence your machine selection. These generally range from about 5 to 10 mph, depending on make and model. Some offer two ranges: low for working and high for travel.

Serviceability. Over the years, manufacturers have greatly improved ease and speed of access to routine servicing and maintenance points on skid-steer loaders. These advancements include swing-open tailgates for fast access to engine components and easy-to-tip rolloff protection structures and fall-on protection structures (ROPS/FOPS) to reach hydrostatic components quickly. For example, one manufacturer reports that you can reach 90% of the service and maintenance items on its machines in two minutes or less. On at least one manufacturer’s machines, draining the engine oil is as simple as uncapping a hose connected to the oil pan and directing it into a container.

Comfort and Convenience. Ease of operating a skid-steer loader plays a big role in your productivity as an operator. Depending on the manufacturer, you might have a choice of one or more methods of steering and operating the lift arms and buckets.

With one system, you steer with your hands by operating two levers, and you raise and lower the lift arms and dump and rollback the bucket or other attachment using your feet. With another approach, you use only your hands to steer and operate the loader. A third approach features a lever for one hand to steer and a joystick for the other hand to operate the lift arms and bucket or other tool.

The best method, say seasoned operators, is probably the one you learned first.

Depending on climate, you might want an enclosed, air-conditioned and/or heated cab. Even if hot or cold air temperatures aren’t a consideration, top and rear windows offer protection from wind and rain and help reduce engine noise. Some manufacturers also offer sound insulation to further reduce engine noise at the operator’s ear.

Don’t forget to check ease of entering and exiting the cab, ease of seeing instruments and reaching controls once seated, and visibility to the front, sides, and rear of the machine.

One more thing: A skid-steer loader with an extended wheelbase offers a smoother ride than one with a traditional compact frame.

Safety. In addition to a ROPS/FOPS-approved cab, safety features to look for include systems that prevent use of hydraulic controls-unless you’re seated with seat belt fastened and seat bar lowered-and supports that prevent the lift arms from lowering accidentally when the skid-steer loader is being serviced or repaired.

Accessories. Tracks-either rubber or steel-that fit over the wheels are a popular option when skid-steer loaders are operated in soft soil conditions.

Among other items that can add to the usefulness of a skid-steer loader, depending on your applications: different types of pneumatic and solid tires, deluxe sound-reduction packages, front and rear work lights, and counterweight kits to increase rated operating capacity.
About the Author

Greg Northcutt

Greg Northcutt writes frequently on construction and business issues.